Lebanon High School, Lebanon, OH
Have you ever heard the song “The River” by Garth Brooks? It’s a lot like that. “A dream is like a river, ever-changing as it flows, and the dreamer’s just a vessel that must follow where it goes.” I have had a passion and inquisitiveness about the living world since I could walk, and dreamed of being a scientist practically my whole life. So it was only natural that “the river” led me to an MS and a PhD program.
At some point, though, the publish-or-perish grind of academia seemed like such a disconnect from everything that I loved. I had somehow lost my sense of what science was, why it mattered, and why I loved it. In my mind, I wasn’t making a big enough contribution to science and society with the path that I was on. The bright spots were usually in the days when I was TA-ing freshman biology labs, and I found myself devoting more and more of my time to the teaching because I loved it. At some point, I realized that my talents and passion for science and biology were better used in classroom experiences with students than by staying on the PhD track.
Occasionally, I still do freelance research work in my downtime to foster that side of myself, but my switch from doctoral student to education master’s student was the single best decision I ever made.
The students I have been privileged to know have gone on to become conservation biologists, veterinarians, physical therapists, landscapers, politicians, science teachers, nurses, writers, engineers, and informed consumers of science. That is much more of a contribution to science and society than I think I would have ever made had I finished my PhD.
I teach in a small-town suburb in southwestern Ohio with farming roots. We have approximately 1,600 students in grades 9−12. Approximately 16% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged and 10% of our students belong to a minority group.
I teach sophomore general biology, sophomore AP Biology and junior/senior AP Environmental Science each year. I am fortunate to teach in a district that realizes the value of a double-block schedule for all of its high school science classes.
Anything and everything I can get my brain on! News headlines, student experiences, music, movie scenes, my own life experiences, colleagues (both my “real life”and my digital colleagues).
I’ve learned over the years that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do really cool stuff, you just sometimes have to add some sweet rims to it to make it your own, so that’s what I tend to do.
Science is not a spectator sport, so students know that we are going to be actively inquiring, experimenting, interacting, collaborating, arguing and discussing, all day, every day. We are a curious and interactive species by nature, so I tap into that with my students as much as I can in the materials I choose and the experiences I plan.
Let’s be real, we have all sat in eight-hour professional development meetings where we have been talked AT all day. How engaged were you by hour seven or eight? How much time did you spend texting about your boredom with your colleagues in the same room? How useful was that PD to your day-to-day life? Many of our students have this experience every day, 180 days a year. This is not authentic learning and it certainly isn’t how science is done.
One of my favorite lyrics from that song I mentioned earlier is: “So don’t you sit upon the shoreline/ And say you’re satisfied/ Choose to chance the rapids/ And dare to dance that tide”
To be an effective teacher, I am of the mindset that you have to be willing to chance the rapids and dance the tide each day. Do I have a plan each day? Yes. But that plan changes depending on where our curiosity and learning needs take us. By having an active voice in our learning, students are more engaged and they gain a more authentic science experience.
My students also know that when they ask me a question I am likely to respond with another question, or an “I don’t know, how would you figure that out/ test that?” then a direct answer. Try it sometime, chances are their eyes will light up and they will start grinning.
Discovery is exciting and students need opportunities to discover. More often than not, we need to ask them the right questions rather than tell them the right answers.
So many! Top of the list if money and time were no object would be a National Parks Explorer course that students spend one to two weeks every summer in a different U.S. or Canadian national park doing scientific research, interacting with park scientists, meeting with indigenous peoples, etc.
On a more reasonable scale, I would love to have a student-designed outdoor learning lab that allowed us to do ecological research on school grounds with experimental ponds, streams, woodlots, gardens, prairies, and other ecosystems.
I want them to be enchanted with the big, beautiful, complex, awe-inspiring natural world that we live in and to never look at it the same way again. I want them to be enchanted to the point that they never lose their sense of wonder and curiosity.
Honestly, I don’t much care if they remember a single detail of cellular respiration, for instance. But, are they awestruck at the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of it? Are they fascinated at how this series of chemical reactions makes their lives possible?
There was a student during my first year teaching (we will call him B.), a five-foot-four bundle of headache for every teacher and administrator in the building. What most people didn’t realize, though, was that B. could run circles intellectually around most of his peers. He had a lot of life experience that made him grow up faster than any teenager should have to. His family was in and out of homelessness and had not really had a fair shake at life.
Not many teachers could work with B., but he and I developed a rapport that made each day in my class akin to a rap battle. We played off of each other’s sense of humor and learning came in the form of a comical exchange of wits most of the time.
He was successful in my class, and even turned in a final project. I learned so much about the kind of teacher I wanted to be from him. I learned to be resilient, flexible, pick my battles, see students as individual learners, and to not get so uptight about “the lesson” and “the content.”
Fast forward several years, and I am pulling into the school parking lot on a random summer day to take care of my classroom animals, and without warning the car in front of me comes to a sudden stop and jolts into park. Out from the passenger side jumps this six-foot-two behemoth of a 20-something-year-old grinning from ear-to-ear with his arms outstretched. Yep, it was B. He gave me a big hug and told me how much I had meant to him. He had found his passion in photography and was gearing up to take some classes. I smiled and told him how proud I was of him as we both went on our way.
I got a call not long after that from B’s brother that B. had passed away unexpectedly. I often wonder how B. would have chosen to use his passion for photography. How did the world look through his lens? That’s the lasting lesson that I carry from him as a teacher: How does the world look through each student’s lens?
The national motto of Costa Rica is “Pura Vida.” It’s a catch-all phrase that can be used to express everything from absolute elation to absolute exasperation. It perfectly describes the trip.
We were able to work with a local outfitter from our town here in Ohio who has a lodge in a very remote part of Costa Rica that not many tourists visit. We stayed at the edge of Parque Nacional Corcovado, a place that is only 0.001% of the planet’s total surface area, yet contains upwards of 2% of the planet’s biodiversity.
We had so many shared experiences that changed our worldviews and brought us together as co-explorers in a place so different from our small-town midwestern bubble. Seeing a place that I have always loved so much through students’ eyes gave it a whole new meaning to me. Their sense of wonder and awe at being scientists in such a biodiverse place was a priceless experience. I try to recreate that experience whenever I can, even in our explorations of our school grounds.
Number 1 on the list is talking with students to identify the source of their struggles. Is it due to a genuine lack of understanding on their part, or is it because of the way that I am asking them to show me their understanding? Is it due to a lack of self-confidence or a lack of stability at home?
From there, the student and I make a plan for how I can be supportive with my time, materials, or differentiated learning and assessment. Students are incredibly perceptive about their own needs as learners. Ask them—they will tell you what works for them.
When all of my go-to strategies (analogies, graphic organizers, model building, alternative assessment, etc.) don’t seem to do the trick, number 2 on the list is definitely kicking around ideas with an intervention specialist. They have been invaluable resources to me for finding new and creative strategies that I didn’t even know existed.